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Panning for gold in the e-panhandle

I’m proud to say I once was a disgrace. 4/06 Future Shoes HED: Panning for gold in the e-panhandle I’m proud to say I once was a disgrace. by Michael Finley

I saw an entry on Yahoo! last week that brought back an embarrassing memory. The entry is If you go there, you will find a long list of people who have put up Web sites for the express purpose of begging visitors for money, and apparently, getting a few bucks for their trouble–enough to pay for the site anyway.

Really, for an illustration of all that’s wonderful about the Internet–this is a kind of entrepreneurism, pursuing happiness with other people’s money–as well as a portrait of the character of our so-called civilization, you must check out these links.

I did something like that once. I was 17, a freshman at the College of Wooster in Ohio’s Amish country. Though today I practically define techno-suavity, in those days a lot of people thought I was Amish, because my hippie uniform was black buttonfly woolies and an eight-inch stovepipe hat. Apart from the beard, which was more a corn tassel than a full-blown Nehemiah, I looked like old Ned Ludd himself.

Here’s the scoop. I and my hippie friends thought we had stumbled onto The Secret of Easy Living. My mom was a lifetime subscriber to the literary journal Saturday Review, and I got the idea of placing personals ad trolling for a wealthy sponsor for our group. The fantasy was that we were lifestyle pioneers who needed a luxuriant, no-cost place to crash after staggering around all day entertaining ourselves, and that somewhere out there was a rich older person with two houses who wanted to add relevance to his or her existence by underwriting our self-indulgence.

This was the ad, at $1.20 per word: “Freedom-celebrating artists commune seeks benefactor with groovy digs. Box SR114.” We were on the lookout for silver-haired stemware-sucking Lionel Trilling types craving to pause their Brubeck reel-to-reels long enough to connect with today’s did-anybody-see-what-I-did-with-my-shoes? set.

I think we enjoyed one another’s company so much, giggling late into the night over the Airplane and the Mothers, that we came to think our lovability quotient warranted a free pass through life. We seriously supposed that the ad would appear and the following day we could pick a gated mansion from our choice of locales–Beacon Hill, Haight-Ashbury, and Laguna Beach (where Timothy Leary lived) being frontrunners. Somebody said they heard Manhattan was nice.

Well, Saturday Review disappointed us by returning our check for $10 (the minimum), with a note saying it was not the sort of ad a magazine of their caliber was anxious to run.

“That’s why you can’t count on the liberals,” one of our group said bitterly. Their loss, I figured. (And sure enough, a mere 24 years later, Saturday Review, doubtless done in by the quadrilangularity of its thinking, shut its doors forever.)

So when I see the Internet sites of kids thinking they’ve invented goldbricking, I titter, yes I do. In the jewel-encrusted history of trying to get something for nothing, I was a 49er. Sure, I am the very model of the modern yuppie moderate; I have a work ethic and everything. But I’m proud to say I once was a disgrace.

This week I stumbled upon something that got the old lazy juices burbling again. Amazon Honor System, it’s called. It’s an electronic donation box that nonprofits (and e-panhandlers) can place on their Web sites. Well, it happens that I am affiliated with a nonprofit, my beloved Minnesota Folk Festival. You may think folk festivals are all rolling in money, but we are the exception to this rule.

So I mounted an Amazon donation box at our folk festival website. It’s been up there for several days now, and the total proceed to date total … let’s see here … nothing. Which I’m sure has been the primary experience of most of the people at the Yahoo! panhandling link. People–they just won’t line up to give you money for nothing.

But beautiful fixations, like the vision of a free lunch, die hard. Lazy people, if they are curious, often discover shortcuts the rest of the world quickly swarms through. The tragedy is that being lazy that way is such grueling work, and the rewards, considering the grandness of the contribution, are so slight.

Michael Finley also writes Diversions monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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